Thank you for that warm introduction and welcome.
I’ve got a simple message today. Big thinking from the union movement can help us overcome any problem. Unions have saved Australia in tough economic times, triumphing to build a better economy and fairer society, and can do it again.
This is the first time I’ve spoken to you in my new role as Chair of Cbus, an industry fund that has shared a deep connection to the AWU as a sponsoring union for over three decades.
Indeed super’s success can inspire us to do more in terms of economic policy.
If you had told people 30 years ago that unions and employers could create a national savings pool bigger than our economy they would have told you that you were dreaming.
And if you said that the big industry funds like Cbus would deliver returns upwards of 9% a year on average, beating out all the big banks, they would’ve laughed you out of the building.*
This is precisely what our superannuation model has achieved.
The creation of super tells us that no matter the size of the challenge for our nation, those challenges can be overcome with vision, courage and cooperation between unions, employers and governments.
Super is a classic case of how we should seek to reform in other areas. Think big. Think long, Spread the gains broadly.
People say “Why is it always newly elected Labor Governments that get dealt a bad hand of cards when they finally win an election?
But we in the Labor movement don’t see it that way. We say “It’s our opportunity to build the nation.”
And that’s why I’m optimistic that the Albanese government, working with unions and employers, will overcome the difficult challenges they have inherited.
My long association with the AWU is one of the proudest badges I wear.
I joined the union as a university student. I won’t say when. I might show my age. But it was back in the days when Bruce Springsteen was first becoming the undisputed king of rock.
He still is, in my humble opinion.
Are there any Bruce fans here?
Life was good back then, as it always is when you’re young and looking for a purpose.
My friends and I studied hard…
And we played hard… as I may have mentioned once or twice, cranking the Born to Run album up to 11 until the early hours of the morning, to the delight of our neighbours.
We also worked hard.
My student jobs were in sewerage maintenance and chook manure shovelling……………. Which qualified me perfectly for a life in Queensland politics.
Working as a sewerage maintenance man also taught me to hold my nose – something that came in handy in many years in Opposition in Canberra.
My AWU membership meant that even though I was only a student, I got a unionised wage that enabled me to support myself as I qualified for my degree.
The kids today, working in their casualised jobs, delivering pizzas and staffing phone banks, are frequently exploited and betrayed, could do with some good old-fashioned unionism and the chance to learn the value of solidarity and looking out for each other!
Don’t you think?
That job was my first awakening to the good unions can do and the power they had to give people a living wage and support an upwardly mobile society.
I have marched in the rain with the AWU. I have worked alongside the AWU. And I have represented the hopes and aspirations of thousands of members of the AWU in the federal Parliament and in the Cabinet.
For decades I have stood with you and I am so proud to stand with you today.
The politics of your union is in part where my purpose came from.
I got to know and admire so many great AWU people.
Like, my mentor and lifelong hero, Mick Young. What a totally admirable human being he was. A great working class man. Without his organising genius, there might have been no Whitlam government.
And of course the great Bill Ludwig, who sadly passed some months ago.
From their example I learned a big but also very simple lesson: unions are a force for good in our society.
And this good stems from their commitment to greater equality.
THE ECONOMICS OF EQUALITY
For decades in the world of economics, equality was discredited.
Remember what they called it? The politics of envy. It was envious to want to feed your family and buy a home, apparently.
Unions were regarded as a problem, not as the positive force they really are.
We need more of them, giving more negotiating power to wage and salary earners.
It’s not just you and me saying this now, it’s the head of the Reserve Bank, the IMF, the World Bank and any reputable economist you could name.
When we look around the world today, we see the consequences of the rise of inequality and the attacks on unionism that went on when equality was discredited.
We see working people feeling betrayed.
So betrayed that they turned to phonies and populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
It all had something to do with the stupid and destructive idea that decent wages, taxes and social investment are inherently anti-business. That every dollar that government raises and invests on behalf of the people somehow robs us of our economic vitality.
That pursuing equality makes us collectively poorer.
The rule of dumb ideas like this is over, although we must be forever on our guard.
Paying workers fairly isn’t anti-business, it’s pro-business.
It is unambiguously pro-business to oppose rising inequality in Australia.
Businesses need workers to have spending power.
A few years ago, the IMF pointed out that we ignore rising global inequality and distributional impacts at our peril.
The last decade of wage stagnation and growing inequality in Australia is one of the major reasons why the government changed in May. Working people had had enough.
The fact is, business thrives best in a decent society. And a decent society can’t be created through trickledown economics alone. Smart businesspeople understand this.
In recent years I’ve been devoting myself increasingly to these sorts of issues, serving on international bodies alongside people like Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty.
Nobel Prize winner Jo Stiglitz, who was in Australia in the last few weeks, has been pointing out for many years that the higher the level of equality in a society, the stronger the long-term prospects of its economy.
Greater equality through higher wages, higher participation rates and higher investment in education, health, childcare, research and public infrastructure boosts demand, boosts productivity, and boosts living standards for everyone.
THE NEW LABOR GOVERNMENT
We must strive to live in a community, not a corporation. The economy exists for us, not us for the economy.
We’re fortunate now to have a new government that believes in just that and says it regularly.
Doesn’t it feel like a breath of fresh air?
How great it was to see Anthony Albanese make a decent pay rise for lower income Australians the centrepiece of his election campaign. It’s something that’s been long overdue in Canberra.
It’s wonderful to have a prime minister who knows what it’s like to grow up on struggle street and who knows the value of a dollar to working people.
I must say, his holding up of a dollar coin on TV was one of the simplest but most intuitive pieces of campaigning I’ve seen in a long time.
And it was all the better still for being inspired not by economic modelling but by economic realities…………By real life.
Anthony is well supported by one of the most experienced and talented front bench teams Canberra has produced.
Labor has produced some wonderfully equipped ministries since World War Two, and this team has what it takes to be the equal of any.
Many are either experienced ministers or experienced high-level policy makers.
I’m so proud to say that one of the most highly qualified of them, another great supporter of the AWU, is Jim Chalmers. Someone I worked alongside for many years.
He learned government and Treasury the hard way – during the Global Financial Crisis. For six full months we worked hard together to get Australia through that crisis.
Be assured, the Treasury is in good hands.
Having seen that it is possible to overcome global recessions without increasing economic inequality, I know he’ll do his best to be a treasurer for everyone, not just a treasurer for those with the most clout.
He understands the current macro-economic environment requires more equality, not less, and that’s why he’s pledged to fight the global downturn guided by the principle of economic fairness and the need to build stronger and better public services for all Australians.
Confronted by tough circumstances, his statement of last Thursday faced up to the economic realities without jettisoning Labor’s values or election promises.
It’s not going to be easy for him. Or for us. But let’s show faith. Let’s give the new government the chance it deserves.
UNIONS AND THE JOBS SUMMIT
One of the great ideas proposed by Jim and the government is the forthcoming Jobs and Skills Summit.
At 3.5 per cent unemployment, Australia’s employment position is strong.
It’s great news for workers and we have to keep this going.
What we also need is for wages to grow and to deal with the plague of insecure work.
The wages share of national income is now below 50 per cent. The lowest proportion since 1960.
In the last ten years, wages have risen by 25 per cent, but prices by 24 per cent. That’s a real wage rise on 0.1 per cent per year for ten whole years.
And it’s my bet that that tiny one per cent increase in living standards in a decade is now being wiped out by high inflation and mortgage repayment increases.
At the same time, the profit share of the economy is at its highest since 1960.
Yes, inflation is too high. But wages are too low. Too low certainly to account for all that inflation.
If I can quote Jim’s statement to the parliament of last Thursday:
Inflation is high and getting higher – but it is not being driven by higher wages.
We don’t have an inflation problem because Australian workers are earning too much.
Achieving a sustained lift in real wages over time, especially after a lost decade of stagnant wages, is the challenge.
As we know, in economics, the answers are never simple. They are always inter-related.
But it’s my belief that with unions involved as equals in the discussion, the job summit can help point us in the right direction.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SUPERANNUATION
We have seen union leadership spark economic advancement for the nation before. Just look to the genesis of Cbus and our industry superannuation funds.
Last month was the 30th Anniversary of compulsory and universal super through the Superannuation Guarantee.
In just three decades total superannuation assets in Australia have grown from around $148 billion to $3.4 trillion. A 23-fold increase… and counting.
The creation of Australia’s compulsory superannuation system was an audacious and even miraculous project.
And we only achieved it because trade union members in the 1980s saw inequality in the retirement system and were determined to change it.
No longer should superannuation be only for the lucky few white-collar professionals –
No longer should a building worker, or a shop worker, or a steal worker or a shearer have to work hard all their life, with nothing better to look forward to in retirement than a subsistence level pension –
They had a better idea: Giving workers a slice of the nation’s capital, a say in the way that capital was invested, and an adequate retirement free from worry of going without.
That’s why they created industry super funds like Cbus.
Don’t let anyone tell you that compulsory superannuation was a mistake.
It was and remains one of the greatest reforms the union movement has ever brought about, maybe up there with the living wage and equal pay for women.
Its contribution to building our modern economy and to the lives of super fund members has been immense:
That superannuation has been able to survive, mature and thrive, is testament to its design and to the tenacity of all of us who have believed in this national project.
Thirty years on, we must keep that national project going.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION CHALLENGE
And while you have a big agenda on your hands in terms of wages, secure jobs and skills—Australian workers need the AWU to continue its leadership on energy policy as global investment shifts.
The climate wars of the last decade have been deeply dishonest. They’re now behind us.
While there remains a key role for gas in industrial sectors as we transition the declining costs of clean energy are unleashing investment in the renewables transition. Global financial markets are shifting capital from high to low carbon.
The International Energy Agency says $4 trillion US dollars in annual investment will be needed for the energy transition by the end of this decade.
Australia can’t leave our head in the sand holding back a torrent of global capital.
The choice we face, as trade unionists and as a nation, is whether this transition happens on the backs of workers, or if we seize the opportunity for cheaper energy to re-enliven our traditional manufacturing base as well as the new industries of the future, such as hydrogen.
Whether we seize the opportunity to secure high quality, high paid blue-collar jobs for generations to come.
These big changes won’t be easy for unions. But the AWU has never shied away from hard things, particularly when it comes to energy.
I want to leave you with the following message – one my long association with the union tells me matches the values of the AWU.
Keep up the fight for a better society.
Keep resisting inequality, which has done so much damage to the lives of your members and working people everywhere.
Think of what good the union can do in cooperation with a Labor government in Canberra. Have patience and seek mutual understanding with it.
Bring big ideas to the table. Not just at the Jobs Summit, but beyond, as we create a more sustainable economy.
And because you believe so strongly in fairness, keep supporting the institution that gives union members a fair stake in our nation and its future – industry superannuation.
*Source: from the SuperRatings FCRS SR50 Balanced (60-76) Index Survey, for the period ending 30 June 2022. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.
Before taking any action to acquire a Cbus product, you should read the relevant PDS and TMD to decide if Cbus is right for you.